The sad story of Simon Spence and Max Hill

Simon Spence QC

Many, many years ago I shared a flat in a high rise block somewhere East of Richmond and West of Sheen. My only flatmate was a then rising star of the bar, Simon Spence. I can’t even remember how we were thrown together. Probably I rang a telephone number on the Inner Temple noticeboard, Simon interviewed me, satisfied himself that I didn’t have untreatable halitosis and offered me his spare room. We didn’t see much of each other after that: he was a silver-tongued advocate, already greatly sought after by bling-flashing Essex armed robbers, whilst I was trying to eke out a living from the less glamorous but at least endlessly renewable resource of Swindon alcoholics.

Sadly, and through no fault of his, Simon’s flat was not for me. After 6 weeks or so of a rather lonely life I decided – I am sure it was by mutual agreement – that my experiment in high rise living was over and I moved out. Since then I don’t think I have come across my former flat-mate at all, although I have followed his steady rise to the ranks of Queen’s Counsel with interest and just a little of that envy that all ordinary barristers have when their student contemporaries take silk or become grand judges.

So it was with no great surprise that I saw that Simon had decided to stand for election to become Vice Chair of the Criminal Bar Association, which is as close as the criminal bar has to a Trade Union. As long as my membership fees are up to date I have a vote in the election and, quite probably, I would have given it to him, if for nothing else then for old times’ sake. It is, to be sure, an important and prestigious role, not least because being Vice Chair of the CBA is often a stepping stone to being the overall leader of the Criminal Bar. From that lofty position some have gone on to be High Court judges, terror watchdogs and even to play the part of slippery and untrustworthy prosecuting counsel in reality TV shows. Many recent chairs have pulled off the difficult trick of being superb criminal advocates, tough negotiators and very nice people too.

Candidates for the election are required to produce manifestos. Quite often these don’t really say very much. It is pretty much a given that everyone promises to fight for an independent bar, and to try to stop the government cutting our fees. (Despite these promises the fees are always cut anyway). Insofar as politics intrudes into the elections, the divide is between hotheads who favour collective action of the sort that might cripple the court system for days or weeks, and conservatives who favour the power of persuasion and compromise.

I have no idea on which side of that divide Simon stands because I never got to read his manifesto properly before most of it it was summarily removed from the internet. The reason for this was that in a paragraph dealing with his policy on fees (surprisingly enough he was in favour of more money for criminal advocates) he called for

… a payment for ALL hearings … and proper reward for early preparation. This need not involve an increase in the budget, simply a reallocation of funding away from the litigator’s fee, when they are often paid more than the advocate for little more than instructing counsel and inviting them onto the CCDCS [the electronic system that has almost entirely replaced paper briefs in the Crown Court]. It is quite wrong that the postman gets more than the person to whom he delivers the post and who has to read and digest it.”

To those readers who are not criminal lawyers who might be confused by some of the jargon: he was arguing that the system for paying criminal legal aid fees should be rearranged so that advocates (still in the main barristers) should be paid more than litigators, that is the solicitors who (in the main) do the preparation.

One can, of course, argue politely about how the fee system should be balanced, but by using the word “postman” seemingly to denigrate the work of criminal solicitors he managed to insult just about every criminal solicitor in the country, while making most of his criminal barrister colleagues cringe with embarrassment. Any postmen (and especially postwomen) reading his manifesto will also have felt rather miffed to be singled out as the paradigm of a low value worker.

It is, I am afraid, true that there are some solicitors who do virtually nothing beyond instructing counsel. They don’t deserve to be paid. By the same token there are some barristers who don’t read the papers till the last minute and whose advice and advocacy is lousy. Quite often the former instruct the latter. But most solicitors aren’t a bit like that, and there is no getting away from the fact that Simon committed the most awful, clanging gaffe. It is the sort of thing that, were he a cabinet minister, would have resulted in him making a grovelling apology followed by a hasty decision to spend more time with his family. Like Liam Fox. Well, maybe not exactly like Dr Fox but you get the idea.

Understandably, offended solicitors were quick to leap to the defence of their profession. The first to put Spence right was Zoe Gascoyne, Chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association. It’s worth reading the whole of her eloquent and polite letter, especially if you are a successful criminal QC tempted to think that your solicitors are paid too much, but this is a flavour of it:

As ‘postmen’ we represent our clients at the police station and at the Magistrates Court. Representation at the latter being paid for by the litigators fee that you believe ought to be cut. As ‘postmen’ we see our clients on countless occasions before your brief is even delivered by us. As ‘postmen’ we are instructed because of the job that we do and let me tell you it involves far more than just delivering your post. As ‘postmen’ our clients regularly turn to us with a manner of problems that don’t ever come anywhere near your letterbox.

Think about how you get paid Mr Spence. Legal aid isn’t just handed out. As ‘postmen’ we sit with our client and fill in the forms. We obtain the necessary financial evidence and we submit the application. We do all of this so that both of us get paid. How do you suppose this would happen if the ‘postmen’ didn’t exist? You see Mr Spence this is just one of the things you appear to be completely unaware of. I say one of the things because I doubt that you have any idea what being a ‘postman’ actually entails and what a difficult job it is.

Another solicitor, David Osborne (himself no mean advocate), drew a different and beautifully elegant analogy without even mentioning Spence by name. Solicitors, he wrote were more like fishermen:

Now fish arrive in all shapes and sizes. Much of it will carry no financial reward at all and most of it will certainly not be of any interest to the Michelin-starred chef in central London. The fisherman therefore spends a lot of his time sorting through it all and catching lots of fish in the hope that a tiny proportion of it will please the restaurateur.

Fish goes off. If you don’t look after it properly you will lose it and so a complex supply chain is required to keep it in a happy state. All of this takes skill, experience, logistical know-how and money. Lots of money.

Finally it arrives at the restaurant. Here, a competent chef will transform good ingredients into something fantastic. With the right touch, the audience will swallow it whole. As a matter of common sense, a poor chef can ruin a perfectly good fish.

All of these elements are important. I love to watch a master chef at work as much as anyone else. It is a thing to behold when decent raw materials become delicacies. But let’s not bash the fisherman, eh? They’ve got a tough enough job as it is and they get little thanks for most of it.

Meanwhile, even within his barrister electorate Mr Spence found very little support for his position. He attempted a number of apologies and a few U-Turns. When they didn’t work he tried three, four and five point turns and even had a go at a screaming, high-speed handbrake turn. Clarifications were issued, numerous things were put into context and a veritable midden of misunderstandings cleared up. All in vain. The game was up. YouGov polls detected a sudden swing to his opponent; Survation predicted a landslide. Focus groups up and down the country were unanimous: Simple Simon had made a complete wally of himself; bar politics is obviously not his cup of tea. Not since May 17th has a manifesto proved to be such a complete and utter lemon. Yesterday he bowed to the inevitable and withdrew from the race, meaning that his very well-qualified opponent Chris Henley was elected unopposed.

We’ve all done it. We’ve all said something stupid, some of us more often than others. Life goes on. In a month or two he will be back to doing what he does best which is representing his clients in front of a jury that know little and care less about the internal politics of the criminal bar.

One would hope that at this point a line would thus have been drawn under the whole unfortunate affair. Unfortunately, drawing a line does not seem to be the style of Spence’s head of chambers, who just happens to be reality TV’s latest pantomime villain: Max Hill QC.

Max Hill QC

Mr Hill, a former head of the Criminal Bar, issued a statement about the matter. He distanced himself and his very well-regarded Red Lion Chambers from Spence – not that anyone with the slightest knowledge of how the bar is organised had any reason to suppose that he or any of his colleague’s shared any of Spence’s views about the solicitors’ profession. Why would he? The whole point of the independent bar is that members are individuals, with individual practices, opinions and baggage. In any case, Spence had himself made it quite clear (perhaps at Hill’s suggestion) in his withdrawal statement that

… my colleagues at Red Lion Chambers … had no role in my candidacy and … no input or advance sight of my statement. I very much hope that nobody taking an adverse view of me allows that view to affect their view of my chambers.”

Here is Hill’s short statement in full, with my annotations in square brackets.

Simon Spence QC has resigned as a candidate for election as Vice Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association. He made a significant error in his election manifesto and has paid a heavy price for that mistake, namely the loss of his candidacy together with intense criticism from representatives of both legal professions, the Bar and Solicitors. Following his attempts to answer those criticisms [unsuccessful attempts, of course] during the last 24 hours, he has decided to stand down [not before time].

For those who have raised questions, it must be understood that Simon Spence QC made a personal decision to stand for election [had he asked me I would have told him not to be such an idiot]. He was not selected by Red Lion Chambers [we wouldn’t have selected him, because now you come to ask me I never thought much of him anyway], nor did his manifesto represent the views of Red Lion Chambers. No member of Red Lion Chambers saw the manifesto before it was submitted to the CBA [I think he was a bit shifty going behind our backs like this].

In common with all who practise within any criminal law set of chambers, Simon Spence QC is an independent, self-employed barrister who has no contract of employment [although we do have other ways of kicking him out]. He will continue to practise from these chambers [for the time being, although we’re very unhappy about it]. Whilst he will no doubt have to deal with the personal consequences of his short-lived candidacy for its impact upon his own work, it would be quite wrong for that to extend to other members of Red Lion Chambers [we’re all available to pick up the work that he now won’t be doing].

Simon Spence QC is entitled to and will receive personal support in moving on from this unfortunate episode.[We will write a reference saying he has participated in a number of cases and has a satisfactory grasp of the criminal law]

Lighten up Max. The colleague whom you have hung out to dry with that cold-as-a-dead-fish statement is indeed entitled to “personal support,” but he’s not getting it from you, is he? He made a mistake. He expressed a silly opinion, probably without thinking about it as carefully as he should. He is not murderer or a rapist that you’re prosecuting. He’s not an undercover terrorist that you should be barking about. He’s done nothing dishonest, nothing dishonourable, nothing of which he should be deeply ashamed. I am quite sure he has realised his mistake and is probably feeling absolutely dreadful about it. One of the things that I value most about my chambers is the way that when a colleague is going through a rocky patch – even if it is self-inflicted – we rally round. You should do the same, not put out snide little statements saying how different the rest of you are from him and implying that you never really thought he was up to the job anyway. You are not different. You are a human being and you too can make mistakes, all of you. He is a chambers silk; he has been an important part of your own success over the years. Now you drop him like a soiled glove, even though he isn’t actually all that soiled anyway.

I hope that Simon will feel able to stay where he is and carry on the brilliant career that he had in Red Lion Chambers. Of course, if he would rather move on (and who would blame him?) I am quite sure that he will find that there are plenty of other sets of chambers where he will find a very warm welcome.

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

13 thoughts on “The sad story of Simon Spence and Max Hill”

  1. Read Max Hill’s statement ve…ry slo…wly and it sounds like a judge giving a death sentence.

  2. Interesting read. Thank you.
    I remember Simon Spence as he was in the year above me at Leicester Polytechnic.
    If he makes “postman” analalogies in court,I would be concerned about instructing him to represent any of my clients.

  3. A good piece, Matthew.

    To me, it is a storm in a teacup. A gaffe? Yes. Lack of momentary judgement? Yes.

    Recovery: Withdrawal of comment, apology and a donation to a charity of the offended party’s choosing.

    If we hang every man who makes a mistake, sooner or later we will run out of hangmen.

  4. I don’t think I would have voted for him, but your analysis is spot on. My concern is that Max Hill isn’t normally someone who behaves as you have characterised it. That suggests a concern in Chambers about peoples’ livelihoods. I have no way of knowing whether that concern is genuine, hysteria or a mixture, but that any concern at all should exist is unhappy in the extreme.

    Bluntly, a candidate in a bar election should be able to offend anyone he pleases and there should be no comeback, save that he does not get elected. If he IS elected then his views should be robustly criticised and he should be relentlessly chased to withdraw them. But threats of extra- curriculum action to prevent election are improper.

    Complaints that he spoke out of turn are fine. Threats to back up those complaints are not. We are used to making unpopular submissions. When politicians threaten us we are outraged. When other lawyers do so – and I include in that solicitors and fellow members of chambers – we should not tolerate it. Otherwise our pretensions to bravely say the unsayable are simply pretence.

  5. “Any postmen … reading his manifesto will also have felt rather miffed to be singled out as the paradigm of a low value worker.” As an ex-postie I have to say that’s a bit harsh. The requirements to be a good postie include being reliable, conscientious, honest, persevering. I’d expect a bit more than that from any professional I hired.

    His offence isn’t being off-hand about posties, it’s being rude about solicitors. That’s not the job of barristers, it’s the job of everyone else in the country. And everyone else doesn’t always bother distinguishing one club of lawyers from another. First we hang etc.

  6. Poor SS clearly has little comprehension of what a conscientious solicitor does or should do. When I practised decades ago, I prepared the case. Interviewed witnesses, and where appropriate obtained expert reports, had plans drawn photographs taken. Checked the evidence closely. Looked at alternative pleas. Advised client on the law. The client may have been guilty of something but not necessarily the crime charged. The charge sheet on occasions was amended to a lesser offence during the early stages before committal. I chose the counsel I thought best suited for the case, and over the years I practised I got to know those counsel whom I respected and with whom I could work with mutual respect as colleagues. I avoided any counsel, and sadly there were some on first encounter, who considered me a postman when I delivered to his ( and it was always a He) clerk a large bundle comprising a fully researched brief. Whilst it was cost effective to appear in the local magistrates’ courts with a number of cases to represent , it was not to appear in the Crown Court with just one case. A solicitor was better suited to concentrate on the daily case work in the lower courts, rather than be out of the office or the lower courts tied up in a lengthy Crown Court trial. Was Verdi a postman and only the opera singer the one that counted? Not that I claim to be a Verdi, but then is SS a Pavarotti?

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